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Doctor relishes privilege of helping Haiti recover
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Doctor relishes privilege of helping Haiti recover

Volunteer endorses Central’s federation’s ambulance effort

Dr. Alexis Halpern with a young patient at the makeshift hospital where she worked as a volunteer in Haiti.
Dr. Alexis Halpern with a young patient at the makeshift hospital where she worked as a volunteer in Haiti.

She was practicing medicine in a converted school, sleeping in a tent, and working in 110-degree heat, but when she got back to the pristine air-conditioned facilities in the United States, Dr. Alexis Halpern found herself desperate to return to Haiti.

Halpern, an attending physician and an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, was in Haiti from April 16 to 24.

She and the team she assembled helped out at a temporary hospital in Fond Parisien, a town about 45 minutes drive from Port-au-Prince. The Harvard University Humanitarian Initiative established the medical facility in a school building right after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Discussing the acute need for help in Haiti, Halpern welcomed news that the Central Jewish community has been raising funds to buy an ambulance for use there. Though she lives in Manhattan, she has close friends in the Central community. She met them through her aunt, Eleanor Rubin, a past president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and she traveled to Israel with the Tel Aviv One mission from Central four years ago.

“The ambulance is a great idea,” Halpern said. “Things have changed since the first hours and days after the quake, but there is still so much need for help.”

The ambulance fund was initiated by a group of local philanthropists. They wanted to do something concrete to aid the earthquake victims, so — working through the federation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — they put up the initial $35,000, enough to cover half the cost of an ambulance, and challenged the community to come up with the other half.

Around $20,000 has come in, Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president and director of financial resource development, said last week. “We need about another $15,000.” Though the media spotlight on Haiti has faded, she said, she is optimistic that the community will continue to support the effort.

Halpern told NJ Jewish News that as tough as it was working in Haiti, “it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was wonderful.”

The people made it memorable. “I’m in love with them,” she said. Though she felt desperate about leaving patients still in dire need of help, she found them remarkably upbeat. “They are amazing,” she said. “They are so stoic and hopeful and resilient. When I asked them how they would cope, the answer was always, ‘God will get us through this.’ I envy them that attitude.”

However, being back has made her feel lost. “It’s not that we’ve got so much here and they’ve got so little,” she explained. “It’s that there is so much more to do.”

The needs now are very different than they were in the days and weeks immediately after the quake. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people are living in tents and other improvised shelters makes it all the more difficult to deliver health-care services. And in addition to those who get ill, there are huge numbers of people — some very young — learning to live with amputations and disabilities. Halpern said there is a great need for physiotherapists.

The hospital in the Fond Parisien school closed last week, much to Halpern’s sharp disappointment. Its mandate and funding had ended, and the patients were transferred to other facilities.

She said, “A friend of mine was wanting to volunteer there, and I had all these things — photographs and letters and clothes that I wanted to send to people there, that I hoped she would take for me.” The closing severed her link with those patients, but clearly not the bond of concern. For now, she is out of vacation time and will have to wait before she can go back.

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